Monday, September 16, 2019

Tuya Grace

"Here is how my new life started in America. I came to the United States in November 2004 from Ulan Bator, Mongolia. I used to be a businesswoman in Mongolia—a professional tailor and fashion designer for more than thirty-five years. It had been my dream to come to the USA since I was little and to live here with my family. The dream came true and it is just like how I always imagined it— beautiful nature, very nice and friendly people, and the freedom.

As time went on I needed to find a job to support my kids. So my friend took me with her to Georgetown, as she was looking for a job as well. We made a couple of stops at some clothing stores and we filled out some job applications. Then my friend said, “It’s time to go home.” As we were heading home I saw a few more stores on Wisconsin Avenue. I told my friend, “Let’s go and check those out too,” and I found a store called Signature. Unluckily, I couldn’t speak any English at that time. All I could say was “hi” and “bye.” Still, I walked into the store and asked the woman if I could have a job there. The woman sold beautiful dresses like the ones Hollywood actresses and singers wore on red carpets. Her husband also had a drapery business. She told me to come back and meet her husband at 3 P.M. So we walked around some more and came back at 3 P.M. The husband said, “Show me your work on the sewing machine.” When he saw my work he was very pleased and said I should start the next morning! 
I was so happy to finally get a job that required me to do what I did best, which was sewing. He said he would pay me $60 per day. I accepted it because I needed a job as soon as possible. After a couple of weeks I told my daughter, who was in high school then, that I need more money, because $60 wasn’t worth the work I did there. I told her I knew I deserved more. But she said, “Mom, no one will give you a raise after just a couple weeks.” So I said, “Okay, I will go speak for myself.” Since I didn’t speak any English, I wrote “$60-$80 please” on a piece of paper and gave it to the boss. He was upset and he said, “Go! Just go!” And I said, “thank you,” because those were the only English words I knew then. I couldn’t say anything else. As I was packing my stuff and walking towards the door, the wife came to me and said, “Tuya, I’ll give you $70. Is that okay?” I agreed because they didn’t want to lose me and also they gave me a $10 raise.

They gave me a work space in the basement which was packed with clothes, shoes, fabrics and the sewing machine. It was very messy. And it was freezing cold in winter. I always had my winter jacket on, and the heat on at the same time as I worked. As time went on, I went out during my lunch break and made friends in the neighborhood.
During that time I lived in Rosslyn in Arlington, Virginia. I would visit my friends who lived on Columbia Pike and think their places were very nice every time I visited. The rooms were bigger, they had a lot of storage, it was a safe neighborhood. So I told them I wanted to move there and they found me a place very fast. I was so happy to move because I found out that there is also a Mongolian church on Columbia Pike at the intersection with Carlin Springs Road.
As time passed I realized my life was getting better and better each day and God was watching how hard I’ve worked. So it was time for me to quit my job and start my own tailoring business. I opened up a shop called Tuya’s Tailor.
I partnered up with my previous employer because they still needed my help but I did their work at my shop. We became good partners, but I also started getting many loyal customers of my own. It was an amazing experience for me to have my own shop for a couple of years. Unfortunately, I had to close my shop due to new building construction. They needed the whole street to build big buildings. I asked my own building leasing office if I could open up my studio in my apartment and they said, “It’s all yours, do whatever you wish to do.” So, it was even more convenient for me to have my studio where I live.

I last visited Mongolia in 2017 and brought back many textiles to work with. In the last three years, Mongolian people started wearing their traditional clothes. Before that they wore Russian clothes. Some designs on the textiles might look Chinese but they are different. I have done one in deep red velvet on blue silk; it’s a symbol of man and woman. The wedding ring has the same symbol. It symbolizes being together for all of life. Another one is this peacock blue silk with copper designs. And look at all this trim, with the same symbols woven in golden thread. I make them into belts. I want to use all sorts of different fabric to make Mongolian clothes with. People always ask me, “Where are you from?” So I want to wear my traditional clothes to say I am from Mongolia. I try my designs on myself first so that when people see them, they might want them. 
That red lace dress was in fashion shows in 2006-2008, every year during our New Year’s programs and Mother’s Day programs. During Mongolian New Year we have so many parties. I was young then and my daughters and I showed off my designs. It was so much fun!
My daughter asked me to design beautiful dresses for pregnant women because she photographed them here in my studio. All these dresses are designed and made by me. I have many photos from my first job here, at Signature. There is one of my boss and me setting up all the draperies we had made in this rich client’s house in New York in July 2005. I was so young then! Wow. It was a long time ago.
I love to look, learn, and be inspired. In New York I visited the MET and bought a beautiful book by the designer Alexander McQueen. I love his art. He has passed away now, but Lady Gaga wore his designs. And look at these books, on calligraphy in my language. My friend is an artist and she moved back to Mongolia and has shows there now. I want to learn, but have to make the time. There is so much beautiful art in our cultures.

I strongly believe everyone has a dream—big or small. I had a lot of dreams when I was little and I still have dreams now. One of them is to open up a community center like a cultural center, a place where anyone can come see and learn about Mongolian culture, about Chingis Khan, about our history, and food as well. There are more than five thousand of us here and that’s why I want to open it - for the new generations. Our kids go to school here, we work here, our families go to church here. There used to be a big Mongolian cargo company on the Pike where new people always come, but there was no place we could meet and connect. I want to have a space where we can support the local population, talk with them, make time to help those in need, and spend quality time together. We would also have a health check-ups in the community center. We could invite doctors from Mongolia and also those who want to help from Virginia. Our doors will be open for everyone in the community. I like to connect with people and help. I will use all my skills to teach many things that I know and help people in many ways. So this is a little idea that I have. There is a Mongolian proverb: “Prepare your vessel before the milk comes in.” You have to have a big mind, then God will send you the ideas.
Recently, for Mongolian Independence Day celebrations on July 11, 2019, I made a yurt, which is our traditional Mongolian house. I made it from wood. It is just half the yurt, so people can see the inside and take photos in front of it in their traditional clothes. I also made a huge Mongolian flag a few years ago. The flag is the 2nd biggest flag in Mongolia but the biggest Mongolian flag in the USA. I made the yurt and the flag on Columbia Pike, with the help of my friends of course.
My daughters finished high school in Arlington, finished cosmetology school, and now they work here and in McLean, so both are still local. I don’t worry about what has changed. My home is the same, lots of shops and clothing stores on The Pike and my community is still here. I am happy here and even though time goes on my life hasn’t changed. I still love sports and dancing and singing. I love playing basketball, volleyball, tennis, and bowling. I still love dancing, too; our traditional dance and in parties. Oh, and we love Mongolian karaoke. In holidays and parties everybody sings. Sometimes when we miss our country we do karaoke. 
Now have you heard of Chengis Khan, the Mongolian ruler? He conquered much of the world during his time. Mongolian people are like warriors—we work like we mean it. It’d be amazing to have a Mongolian town on the Pike just like Chinatown (in Washington DC), and Korea Town (in Annandale). That would be the best thing, I think. Wouldn’t it? Life is wonderful and dreams really do come true. God is with us."

Interview by Sushmita Mazumdar, photography by Lloyd Wolf.

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